Special Operations: In Case Of Emergency


August 15, 2012: Paratroopers were one of the first "special operations" forces to appear in the early 20th century. While no longer needed for mass jumps, the paratroopers are still popular as elite infantry. The airborne units tend to survive reorganizations or downsizing of military forces. This has been especially true in Russia.

Largely unnoticed by the rest of the world, for the last decade the Russian army has gone through a series of reforms, trying to transform the force that lost the Cold War into one that could win the next one. One element of the army, the airborne force has remained largely unchanged. Despite a recent reorganization that made the brigade, not the division the main combat unit, the airborne force still has divisions. The paratroopers are still all volunteers, although money shortages have led to the use of more conscript volunteers in the last few years. Only about a third of airborne troops are career professionals ("contract soldiers"), yet the allure of the airborne is such that there are always qualified conscript volunteers. Alas, the conscripts leave after a year, so by the time you train them to a useful level they are gone. Still, if there is a national emergency that requires loyal, stalwart troops, the paratroopers are the ones you call.

When the Cold War ended in 1991, the Russian army began to rapidly shrink. It was believed that the eight airborne divisions would shrink along with rest of the army. But that was not the case. Airborne commanders made a convincing case that their elite troops would remain professional and increasingly be among the few combat troops that could really be depended on. Thus the airborne force did not shrink as much as other ground troops. This decision was vindicated in 1999, when Russian troops were sent back into rebellious Chechnya and defeated the separatist rebels there. In the first three years of fighting in Chechnya, over 12,000 paratroopers served there and were the most effective troops. This success led to the temporary expansion of the airborne force from 40,000 troops to 45,000 troops. Finally, in 2006, the last paratroopers withdrew from Chechnya, largely replaced by interior ministry paramilitary forces. Two years later paratroopers again proved their professionalism and effectiveness when they led the invasion of Georgia, just south of Chechnya. The airborne force currently consists of about 35,000 troops (organized into four small divisions plus an independent brigade and an independent regiment).

For over a decade, the Russian paratroopers have used intensive training and constant innovation to maintain their combat effectiveness. The Russian paratroopers use "triads" (three-man fire teams) which are organized into larger units for airborne assault group training. Throughout the post-Cold War period, most (about 60 percent) of paratroopers have been conscripts. But that is changing as conscription fades away in Russia. The paratroopers will probably be one of the first components of the army to be all-volunteer.

Russian paratroopers have been around for over 80 years. In that time over 2.2 million troops have served in the airborne forces. These have always been the boldest and most reliable Russian troops available, and those currently serving as paratroopers are no different. Despite their good qualities, Russian paratroopers are no guarantee of success. That's because for most of their history the paratroopers were not used as paratroopers but as elite infantry.

Russia pioneered the development of airborne forces in the 1930s, and by 1941 had five "airborne corps" (each with about 10,000 troops, equivalent to an American airborne division). These units were not fully equipped and the purges of the late 1930s had eliminated some of the best airborne officers. Then when the Germans invaded in June, 1941, the Russian air force was quickly destroyed. Lacking air transports, and with the Germans rapidly advancing on the ground, the five airborne corps were sent in as ground troops. Most of these paratroopers were killed before the end of the year, thus destroying the airborne force Russia had spent the last nine years building up. They did not die in vain, however, as the Germans had a tough time whenever they encountered the Russian paratroopers. But by early 1942, only two of the three airborne corps was intact and suffering from heavy losses.

Before the pre-war Russian paratroopers were destroyed, some of them did get a chance to use their parachuting skills. Between December 1941 and March 1942, 3,500 paratroopers were dropped behind German lines to assist the growing number of guerilla units being formed. Another 7,000 troops were brought in via gliders (as were supplies for the guerillas). This activity caught the attention of the Germans and they eventually wiped out nearly all of these troops. 

Undismayed, the surviving Russian paratroopers were used to train more airborne troops and five more airborne corps were quickly formed. All ten airborne corps saw a lot of combat during early 1942. There were some small parachute drops but none had much impact on the fighting. In mid-1942, the ten airborne corps, and five independent airborne brigades, were turned into regular infantry units and sent south to fight in the battles that led to the German defeat at Stalingrad in early 1943. But even before this campaign was over, paratroopers were pulled out of their infantry jobs at the end of 1942, and used to organize ten Guards Airborne Divisions (basically the same as the previous Airborne Corps). But again an emergency arose that kept the paratroopers on the ground. The Germans launched another major offensive in early 1943, and the paratroopers were once more sent in as ground troops and most of them were lost.

Undismayed, the Russians raised another twenty airborne brigades (about 50,000 troops), which they used to form another six airborne corps. Three of these brigades were used in the first deliberate attempt to use paratroopers to support a major operation. This was the largest Russian airborne operation to date. 

On September 24th, 1943, three parachute and three air landing brigades hit ground 40 kilometers behind German lines along the Dnieper River near Kanev. It was a disaster. Hastily organized, most of the paratroopers had never jumped out of an airplane before, although most had at least jumped from a training tower in a parachute harness. The inexperienced pilots had to do the drop at night, to avoid the risk of German fighters and there was not enough transport aircraft. The Russians had also not learned how important it was to move away from their drop zones quickly and form into larger units. The small, scattered Russians were quickly run down and destroyed by the Germans. What can be said is that the distraction took some German combat units away from the front line and they did allow the oncoming Russian armor units to advance a bit farther than they otherwise would have.

Stalin was not happy with this, the first real test of Russian airborne forces in their designed role. While the persistent efforts to organize new airborne units recognized that the airborne capability was important, the Russian air force was never able to support airborne operations sufficiently to make them work. For the rest of the war Soviet airborne forces were kept on the back burner. It wasn't until after the war that the parachute divisions again became well trained and equipped forces, with sufficient air transports to move them into combat.

But because of changes in technology (helicopters, too many anti-aircraft weapons for transports to operate over enemy territory), the age of major parachute infantry operations had passed. Paratroopers became well trained infantry, all volunteers and eager to jump out of aircraft. Just the kind of guys you need for emergencies.


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